Reviewed by G.L. Horton
"Paul Robeson" belongs to that ancient branch of dramatic art whose purpose is to inspire the people. Don Marshall, who has won plaudits for his performance of "Robeson" at the Missouri Rep and in Pittsburgh, isn't just acting --Marshall is summoning up a hero of the tribe to recount his mighty deeds. Hagiography takes off from its vulgar cousin, the show biz bio-- because this hero wasn't a statesman or an inventive genius, or a martyr witness. Paul Robeson was a celebrity because he was an entertainer. But Robeson is a hero because he fought for his fame against tremendous odds, and because as a scholar-activist he used his athletic prowess, his glorious bass voice, and his considerable charisma to force the world to recognize the worth and achievements of America's citizens of African descent, and to call on all the people of the world to recognize that they are kin, and their brothers' keepers. The standing ovation at the end of Marshall's performance isn't just approval of a well-done piece of entertainment. The applause is a kind of pledge on the audience's part to incorporate the generosity and courage and devotion to principle demonstrated on the stage into their own lives.
Eric Levinson's set for the New Rep's thrust stage is a concert hall , all creamy pilasters and gleaming wood, with a grand piano and a bronze bust of the hero in the place of honor. But framing this, and visible behind it, is a dark panorama of social protest, which Levinson has sketched from period photos such as the ones on display in the lobby: Robeson marching with picket signs, Robeson at the Lincoln Memorial, Robeson honored under the banners of Communism in Russia. At the piano is musical director Everett Freeman Jr., standing in for Lawrence Brown, Robeson's accompanist of thirty years.
For his 1977 script -- James Earl Jones starred in it -- Phillip Hayes Dean edited the events of Robeson's long and active life down to a manageable two and a half hours, and found a tactful way of arranging the narration so that although Robeson tells us of one triumph against cruel odds after another he never seems to be boasting.
Robeson was the youngest of five sons. His mother died when he was very young. His father escaped from slavery when in his teens, yet managed to graduate from Lincoln College with a mastery of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and become an African Methodist-Episcopal minister. Preachers sons grow up under the watchful eyes of their father's flock, and are notorious for going to extremes, either of Godliness or of ruin. Paul Robeson set his feet on the path of righteousness early, and resolved that he would always do the right thing, -- but also that he would be seen to be doing the right thing. His father and the good Christian ladies of his home town church who remembered the motherless boy in their prayers would always have reason to be proud of him. Young Robeson does most everything superlatively well. He is an outstanding scholar, an All-American athlete, a spellbinding public speaker. But is only after a long detour through law school and into a back office as a token lawyer at a prestigious firm that he cuts loose at a posh party and sings some of the Negro spirituals he learned in his daddy's church, and stumbles into his career. This is his path to Heroism; performing the songs of slaves in the concert hall, and making those voices heard in the corridors of power.
The suspense, and the real conflict, works under the surface. Young people in the audience must wonder -- if this man accomplished all those things, why haven't I heard of him? Their elders may know that the "official' story of Robeson's life is that of a gifted athlete who became a popular singer and made some "B" movies, but who was rejected by the public during the fifties when Cold Warriors denounced him as a communist dupe. This is conservative America in the 1990's, "The Bell Curve" is a best-seller and Steve Forbes is betting his inherited fortune that he can buy enough votes to insure that he and his fellow millionaires will never again suffer the injustice of being forced to pay taxes on unearned income. Will an actor really stand on stage in suburban Newton, and recite Robeson's passionate defense of International Socialism? Don Marshall will! He does! Solidarity forever. (The effect is somewhat diminished when, instead of the "Internationale", or "Go Down Moses", Marshall and Freeman lead the mostly Jewish audience in an awkward sing-along to the tune of "Soldiers of the Cross".)
Don Marshall is a good actor, but he isn't Paul Robeson. Marshall's voice and bearing do not match the Robeson who lives in the memory of those who heard him, and director Mary G. Guaraldi has wisely not insisted that the actor try for an impersonation. Marshall invokes the Robeson presence by identifying with and universalizing Robeson's passion and dignity. This works well, because the Robeson of the script is a universalized figure. One senses that there are quirks and complexities beneath the surface that have been glossed over, to make the story as simple and inspirational as possible --author Dean is telling the truth, just not the whole truth. But only Shakespeare or a miniseries could do justice to such a remarkable life.